A Braves’ New World

Milwaukee Brewers @ Atlanta Braves

2017 Regular Season. Atlanta Braves hosted Milwaukee Brewers at Sun Trust Bank in its inaugural year. It’s a hitter-friendly park. Wind was blowing out and Milwaukee Brewers brought their hitting sticks. On this day, the Brewers mustered runs in the first four innings to win 7-0 and ultimately salvage the last of a 3-game series with the Braves. They’ve been hot on the trail in the NL Central Division since, a thorn on the side of the Chicago Cubs and the St. Louis Cardinals. Something unique to Truist Park has been “The Freeze.” Otherwise known as Nigel Talton. He is an Olympic sprinter who races a fan every game in the seventh inning along the outfield warning track. Volunteers are given a head start and can win $100 if they beat “The Freeze.” His plans to compete in the 2020 Olympics were cancelled in the process of qualifying. Maybe he will surface in Tokyo for this summer’s game. As for the Atlanta Braves, they went on to earn a wild card in the 2017 Play-offs and clinched the NL East Division the following 3-years after that. In their short time at Truist Park, Atlanta Braves have been in the Post Season all 4-years. 

Turner Field, the old home field in downtown Atlanta, was only 20 years old. But, the positive economic impact of a baseball stadium on any surrounding development is hard to ignore. Globe Life Field in Texas is the latest example of that. Construction of a new stadium is also a contentious issue in the communities they are built in. Those attractive growth numbers on paper do not always translate well to the bricks and mortar. Tensions bemoan the question “who will pay for it.” But that hasn’t been a deterrent by no means. The trend is that we see more ballparks going up more often. Hence, the case in Cobb County. SunTrust, the naming rights owners, merged with BB&T Bank in 2019 to form Truist Bank. The home of the Atlanta Braves is now known as Truist Park serving as the catalyst to the “2040 Comprehensive Plan, a vision for a new era.” Much energy went into this area 18 miles north of downtown Atlanta. making it a place to live, work and play, a place to attract visitors, residents, and businesses for the next 25 years.

For generations, fans have followed this franchise steeped in history, to the near inception of baseball itself. This oldest continually operating a professional baseball team in America can be traced back to the Boston Red Stockings, established 1871 and evolving to 10 different teams, in 3 different U.S. cities, and in 9 different ballparks. If baseball is still America’s pastime, then this may be the face of the pastime. In that timeline, they’ve won 17 NL Pennants, 20 Division titles and 2 Wild Card berths. Since the inception of the World Series in 1903, they’ve won 3 World Championships; one in each city they played in (1914 Boston Braves, 1957 Milwaukee Braves, and 1995 Atlanta Braves). And in the age of Ted Turner, the Atlanta Braves became “America’s Team” in the eighties and nineties, thanks to the innovations of cable and TBS Superstation. They would broadcast games beyond regional restrictions and across the country.

Four legends of the Atlanta Braves family, who recently passed away, were honored in the 2021 home opener. They all have had an impact on the franchise as well as the game.

  • Bill Bartholomay (1928-2020)

“Mr. B” a pioneer who brought Major League Baseball to the deep south. He was a Chicago Business Executive who joined a consortium that would buy the team. Despite a successful run in Milwaukee, his vision for the future of the franchise was in Atlanta. After legal battles and death threats, there would be a National League team in Atlanta. Bill Bartholomay was instrumental for over 50 years in this endeavor, ultimately partnering with Ted Turner in the 1970’s, the genesis of “America’s Team.” He will be honored throughout the 2021 regular season.  

  • Don Sutton (1945-2021)

In his 22-year Hall of Fame career as pitcher in the Big Leagues is well known. He never played for the Atlanta Braves. But, his first years in broadcasting was in Atlanta (1989). He would eventually become the voice of “America’s Team” for decades on TBS Superstation. Dependable, durable, and consistent are the words the Atlanta Braves use to define Don Sutton. He will be honored throughout the 2021 regular season.  

  • Phil Niekro (1939-2020)

The greatest knuckle ball pitcher of all time, an ace on the staff, a true great on and off the field, a brave to his core, he was an intense competitor who forced his hitters to swing at junk. He pitched 23-years in the big leagues that included 2-tours with the Atlanta Braves. In his first tour, he debuted in 1964 with Milwaukee Braves and was part of that historic move to Atlanta, Georgia. His number 35 will be worn on the caps of the Braves players this year.

  • Hank Aaron (1934-2021)

Model of dignity, an example of excellence in the face of adversity for all Americans to celebrate. April 8th, 2021 marked the 47th anniversary of his all-time home runs record at 715. This was the first time we remembered it without him. In his story, there is a 24-year Hall of Fame career with statistics that will give you brain freeze; just dominant. Through it all, his answer was simple, “keep swinging.” He was a humanitarian whose actions spoke louder than his words, a sense of courage and nobility that went beyond the diamond. His number 44 will be worn on the caps of the Braves players this year.

After a busy winter, Atlanta Braves are still ranked at the top of the NL Eastern Division this year, expected to win +90 games and putting them in a good seed for the post season. But, the elephant in the room will be the recent decision by MLB to move the All-Star Game and MLB Draft out of Atlanta due to recent legislation aimed at voter restrictions to the ballet box. In a statement by Commissioner Rob Manfred (released April 2, 2021) he wrote, “We will continue with our plans to celebrate the memory of Hank Aaron during this season’s All-Star festivities. In addition, MLB’s planned investments to support local communities in Atlanta as part of our All-Star Legacy Projects will move forward. We are finalizing a new host city and details about these events will be announced shortly.” Opinions are split on the issue, a reflection of the polarized society that we live in. But, its simple.

Baseball reflects American culture in many different ways. In hindsight, there have been more than just a few crossroads along the way where social issues were merged with the game. James Earl Jones once said as Terrance Mann in the film Field of Dreams, ‘America has been erased like a blackboard and rebuilt again. But baseball has been the mark of time.” For the most part, the Braves have been a witness to that. Coincidence is more than just ironic that the Braves are in the midst of another contentious moment. In a Braves’ new world, they celebrate the life of  four legends while having the All-Star game and MLB Draft moved out of town on short notice, yet another model of a country divided.

Champion Stadium

Miami Marlins @ Atlanta Braves

Spring Training 2012 at Champion Stadium; part of ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex located in Walt Disney World (Lake Buena Vista, Florida). Atlanta Braves hosted Miami Marlins in late March, as teams finalized their rosters. But, the news throughout baseball broke here just moments before the game. Atlanta Braves third base star Chipper Jones announced he would retire at the end of the season. On this day, he took a pre-game walk to home plate and exchanged starting line-ups with Joey Cora of the Miami Marlins and to exchange pleasantries with Joe West and the three other umpires on duty. He received a lengthy standing ovation on his way back to the dugout, rightly so. In 18 years with the Atlanta Braves, he is an 8-time all-star, a 2-time silver slugger, the 1999 NL MVP, a 2008 batting champion, and a 1995 World Champion. Chipper Jones was the face of all those post season years for the Atlanta Braves.

Over in the other dugout was the newly minted Miami Marlins team. Over the off-season, the Franchise in South Beach was preparing to open the New Marlins Park; launching a marketing campaign that rebranded the team from the Florida Marlins to the Miami Marlins, a throwback to the Triple-A Minor league team (1956-1960). Satchel Paige played for that team in the twilight of his career. The front office also worked feverishly in the hot stove to make good on their promise of putting a team on the field that would go the World Series. Free agents like Jose Reyes and Hanley Ramirez singed on to the build. The Marlins were also close to signing Albert Pujols, who was also on the free agency market after winning the 2011 World Series. He would reject a contract worth up to $300 million over 10 years from the Marlins. Apparently, the deal breaker was a no trade clause that was non negotiable as far as Pujols was concerned. He would sign with the Los Angeles Angels at $254 million, also over 10 years. It was substantially less money but included a full no trade clause from the Angels. That turned out to be a blessing in disguise as the Marlins would be plagued by controversy. For the Marlins, the season would fizzle into a bad ending to a B-movie.

Champion Stadium was the Spring Training home for the Atlanta Braves from 1997 (opening year) to 2019. The team now trains at CoolToday Park (Sarasota, Florida). Technically, it opened for the last spring training game of 2019. But, 2020 was to be the inaugural year. Over the years the 7500 seat Champion Stadium has been home to baseball tournaments at just about every level of amateur, as well as professional, competition. This was the site of the 2006 World Baseball Classic; First round, Pool D. In an effort to promote Tampa Rays fandom. The team scheduled a regular season series in the 2007 (Texas Rangers) and the 2008 Regular Seasons. The Rays won all six of those games. Champion Stadium is one of the ballparks most visited in my baseball pilgrimage; purely by default. I lived nearby for over 15 years. I was here when Sammy Sosa, with the Texas Rangers, returned to the team that first signed him to play his final year in 2007.  I also had the fortune of seeing David Ortiz and Team Dominican face Mike Piazza and Team Italia in the 2006 World Baseball Classic. Hall of Famer Mike Piazza would go on to coach Team Italia under the counseling of legendary Tommy Lasorda.

And speaking of legends, with the passing of Hall of Famer Hank Aaron today, the Braves family, along with the rest of the world, mourn the loss of an icon that was a legend among legends. In the last nine months, (10) Hall of Famers have passed away. The annual induction ceremonies in August of 2020 were cancelled. When the Hall of Fame does reconvene, roll call will be difficult.   

Turner Field

New York Mets @ Atlanta Braves

2011 regular season at Turner Field. The day before was Jackie Robinson Day; when everyone wears No. 42. But the game was rained out. There was also a tornado outbreak in the Carolinas just north. The next day, I traveled from Florida for the weekend and was lucky enough to catch a double-header on a sunny Saturday afternoon in Atlanta. So, in game one, his No. 42 was on the uniforms of all the players and coaches. That alone made this trip well worth the time and effort. But, having dinner between games over centerfield and watching the sunset at the old ballpark was an added bonus. The history of the Braves is perhaps the longest existing thread where we can trace back to the origins of Major League Baseball. The Braves are the oldest professional franchise in sports; starting with the 1860’s Cincinnati Red Stockings that went 57-0. Harry Wright moved his team to Boston.

The Boston Red Stockings were one of eight charter teams that established the National League in 1876. New England enjoyed having two baseball teams with the Boston Americans (Red Sox) established in 1901. Braves then moved to Milwaukee in 1952 and this mid-west era, for the Braves, saw attendance records, the 1957 and 1958 NL. Pennant, 1957 World Championship, and finally a rookie named Hank Aaron bloom to greatness. He was part of that historic move to Atlanta in 1966; the first professional team in the south-east region.

What makes a ballpark great is how it remembers the Legends. Many reminders around Turner Field of the great Hank Aaron, among other greats, who broke the all-time home run record in Fulton County Stadium, which once stood just yards from Turner Field. The Braves moved here in 1966; although construction of Fulton County Stadium was completed in 1965. Due to obligations with City of Milwaukee, 1965 was a lame duck year in Milwaukee County Stadium.

In 1997, Turner Field became the second venue in Atlanta for the Braves. From 1966 to 1996, Fulton County Stadium was their first home in Atlanta. Later, Turner Field would be built as Centennial Olympic Stadium in 1996 as the City of Atlanta was host for the Games of the XXVI Olympiad. The Atlanta Braves had just won the 1995 World Championship in Fulton County Stadium. They were in the post season, in one form or another, for 14 consecutive seasons. Considering how busy it was, the move from Fulton County Stadium to Turner Field was seamless.

Turner Field is now used by Georgia State University. As of 2017, the Atlanta Braves now play at Truist Park, not to be confused with SunTrust Park; the original name when it first opened just three years ago. It’s hard to keep up with the naming rights business. It’s at a newly developed area in Cobb County; about 10-15 miles north of here. It’s expected to spur-on more development. You would think that this park could sustain the Braves another 20 years. Apparently, the demographic trends have moved away from downtown Atlanta; part of an effort to expand the south-east beltline. The 2020 Atlanta Region’s Plan is a 20-year vision for the future with the hope of adapting to technology and change in the area. The Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC) has $85.1 billion behind this plan.

Reporting for Camp

Spending the day in Champion Stadium at Disney’s Wide World of Sports Complex. Atlanta Braves position players were reporting for Spring Training 2013. Soon, the NBA will be in “The Bubble,” (somewhere near this field) to resume the 2019-20 basketball season. We shall see. And, so we shall see about the MLB season. There was no admission to see the players report to camp. But, I managed to have access. I will leave names out to protect the innocent. As of last year, the Atlanta Braves no longer train here. They did so from 1997 to 2019.

The team now trains at CoolToday Park (Sarasota, Florida). Technically, it opened for the last spring training game of 2019. But, 2020 was to be the inaugural year. Atlanta Braves partnered with Sarasota County in a $140 million venture. They signed a 30 year lease to develop the organization in the 6200 seat capacity complex, bells and whistles included. In a related story, the Florida Fire Frogs (Atlanta Braves Advanced-A Affiliate), were also expected to move from Osceola County Stadium (Kissimmee, Florida) to CoolToday Park starting Summer of 2020. Regardless of any pandemic, labor, or minor league issues, MLB will no longer play in Central Florida. The nearest facility is now Publix Field at Joker Marchant Stadium (Lakeland, Florida) where the Detroit Tigers have had spring training since 1934. Its a bit of a stretch. But, I guess you can say the Tampa Rays are part of Central Florida. Its ironic that, with the exception of rain, an environment ideal for baseball is not necessarily a viable business model.

Through out the year, there are multi-sport tournaments or events at Disney’s Wide World of Sports Complex. On this day, there was also a girls soccer tournament nearby. Most of the foot traffic was attributed to that. Here at camp, everything started with stretching-calisthenics. You never want to get hurt. But, that’s especially true when players are trying to hold a job. The trainer had a small meeting to tell players how to hold on to the stretch-out straps because they will “slip, snap back, and take an eye out,” good to know. “That’s all I got,” he said. The training went on to some running and more stretching, defensive drills, then breaking up into smaller groups. Watching the team lining up for calisthenics is the same as a high school team would do. At every level, its still the same universal game. Grown men playing a little boy’s game, as they say.

Among the coaching staff were some familiar faces from baseball in the 1990’s. Third Base Legend Terry Pendleton is a permanent fixture in the organization. Coach Doug Dascenzo (former Chicago Cubs player) worked with the outfielders, hitting fungos. Ron Gant patrolled left field for the Atlanta Braves. But, on this day, he was getting an interview in for his broadcasting job. At the start of the 2013 regular season, Atlanta Braves were projected to have the best outfield in MLB, Justin Upton in left field, his brother B.J. Upton in center field, and Jason Heyward in right field.

The Upton brothers were newly acquired. Chances of two brothers playing together on the same MLB team are slim. Some 20-pairs of brothers have done so. There was some sort of side-game competition with missed or overthrown balls while the new Braves brothers played catch. B.J. was disputing a point that Justin was scoring and Jason Heyward was holding the jury while both sides pleaded their case. The point counted. Was it sibling rivalry or just a competitive drive? I’m guessing all of the above.